Like many women in America, or let me be clear, white women in America, I devoured every word of The Help when I read it two years ago. The fact that an author had written in dialect for another race bothered me, but I believed the good of the book outweighed the bad. It revealed the Hilly’s of the world for who and what they are, racist self-absorbed bigots. It portrayed the South of the 50s and 60s as it was when I grew up there – with the ‘colored only’ water fountains, separate entrance to the balcony of movie theaters for African Americans, separate schools for blacks and whites, stiffly starched uniforms for those African American women who had no choice but to work as maids in white homes. It was a terrific book, I thought, for it revealed the South as I knew it and lived it.
And therein lies the controversy surrounding the work.
There is only one perspective portrayed in both the book and the movie, the perspective of white people. Black women are portrayed as one-dimensional, stereotypical ‘characters’ – not as real flesh and blood people with families, feelings, hopes, and dreams of their own. Real women who are just as able, smart, ambitious, and willing-to-take risks as Skeeter. Real women who cry like Skeeter did over ways they were hurt by their own Mamas.
I’ve just finished writing a book about my time spent at a Home for children orphaned by the AIDS pandemic in Cameroon, West Africa. I Am That Child: Changing Hearts and Changing the World will be released by Morehouse Publishing in January. Before I took it to a publisher, I made certain that African Americans and Africans had read, vetted and offered opinions on every word of the manuscript. And what some of my readers had to say to me wasn’t easy to hear. Not surprisingly, I learned a great deal.
I learned that regardless of how much education we’ve had or how politically correct we think we are – we all wear the blinders of our own race. I learned that we must be willing to consult and learn from those we seek to portray, or we risk re-inflicting old wounds that may or may not have begun to heal. It’s my understanding that Stockett had many manuscript readers. I wonder what they shared with her.
I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to take Anti-racism training from an organization called Crossroads (www.crossroadsantiracism.org). In fact, everyone in the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey has had that same opportunity. Stockett may have had similar training; I don’t know. I do know that I am thankful for mine and that what I learned only scratches the surface of one of the most complex issues in our country today and throughout our history.
The Association of Black Women Historians released a statement about The Help: “Despite efforts to market the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experience of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.” I commend to you the rest of the statement made by Black women scholars who speak the truth of another perspective. It can be viewed at the website named below.
In an interview with NPR Stockett responded to the controversy surrounding her book: “I’m a Southerner — I never take satisfaction in touching a nerve,” she says. “I guess if I’m forced to find a good side, I’m glad that people are talking about an issue that hasn’t really been discussed all that much. I’m glad that people are talking about it from the black perspective and the white perspective.”
Thank you, Kathryn, for beginning this much-needed conversation.